(Almost 30) Best Albums of 2021
Without further ado I admit being a music junkie. I love discovering new music in my journey through online record stores or whenever I am in one of the local record shops. One of the positive side effects of Covid was that people had more time listening to music and started buying records. Vinyl sales were already on the rise over the past years, but the last two years has given them an extra boost that lead to new record stores popping up in Leipzig and elsewhere.
Stop buying crap, support your favorite artists instead!
Roy Montgomery — 40th Anniversary 2021 LP Series
Roy Montgomery. Grouper's 2009 split EP introduced me to the music of the New Zealand based guitarist and it also spawned my love for drone and ambient music. I cannot exactly say what makes me love his music so much, but somehow the layered guitar tunes together with the ethereal reverb in the background create an atmosphere that makes me comfy, and which reminds of warm and sunny summer days that I spent in the country side (or that I just imagined while daydreaming). For me it's just the perfect music to relax and drift away with my thoughts.
When Grapefruit Record Club announced the 40th anniversary LP series I haven't given it a second thought and pre-ordered the vinyls the same day, planning to make myself a little christmas present. But, shipping was delayed to January 2022 because of an unprecedented backup at pressing plants (damn you Adele!).
Roy Montgomery might be best known for his work with Dadamah, an experimental rock/shoegaze group where he sang and played guitar. Their sole album, This is Not a Dream, contains two tracks that still give me goosebumps whenever I listen to them, Too Hot to Dry and High Tension House. His music is melancholic while being still positive, hard to describe. This tension might be the reason I'm so fascinated by it.
In an interview, I read about him, he said that he is a self-taught guitarist. This gives me hope that I can sometimes create similar atmospheres on my guitar. One of my new year's resolutions is to finally take guitar lessons, no excuses anymore.
Skee Mask — Pool
Another good year for Ilian Tape, a munich based techno label managed by the Zenker brothers who are best known for their minimal techno releases. This is not the first album of Skee Mask but a massive one, with more than one hundred minutes of listening time. There are no fillers on this record, every track is worth a listen. I would describe the album as a mixture of low-speed drum and bass, breakbeat and deep techno (it's okay to disagree with that, genre borders are fluid). Not a record to listen on your kitchen radio though, this needs some headphones or speakers capable of producing a massive amount of low end. Highly recommended record and maybe a future classic.
Woulg - Bubblegum
An album for the open minded electronic music lovers. A potpourri of glitched, broken up and detuned samples sprinkled on top of blazing fast, metallic breaks with deep and earth shattering bass drums every once in a while. Woulg is not only a talented IDM or breakcore producer, he also shows some of his producing techniques on YouTube. He released his first record on the infamous illphabetik breakcore netlabel, home of Lisbent.
The album cover should leave no doubt that this is nothing for the faint-hearted.
Dean McPhee - Witch's Ladder
Over to something completely different to the above (and below) albums. Dean McPhee, a UK based solo ambient and folk guitarist which I discovered through his previous record called Four Stones. Witch's Ladder is inspired by folklore, mysticism and the beautiful, wide open and lonely landscapes of northern England.
An album best listened to on a quiet evening with a wood fire or while watching the world fly by through a train window. Enjoy.
Stazma the Junglechrist
Stazma — Leftovers
Stazma's leftovers are better than some other's best productions. I have a soft spot for blazing breakcore beats, especially when they incorporate well versed rapping or funky Squarepusher'esque basslines on top. There are dozens of excellent breakcore producers in France, Ruby my Dear or Igorrr for example. Still, Stazma is a master of his craft and shares his production techniques, like Woulg, with the rest of the world on YouTube.
If you haven't gotten bored by the Amen break yet, and if you like hard and fast break beats then this is something you should listen to.
Repeat Eater — Deep Dessert Dweller
We aren't done with Stazma yet, even though this record was released under his alter ego Repeat Eater. He produces detroit style techno or electro under this moniker. The album was inspired by Frank Herbert's Dune, a story that received a very fine movie remake this year.
Perfect music for driving on the Autobahn or to dance alone in your living room until the clubs reopen.
Harold Budd — Abandoned Cities
Yet another album from a master of his genre. Not a 2021 release, strictly speaking, but a re-release of Harold Budds' 1984 record Abandoned Cities. This one is much darker than his other works and reminds me a bit of the early Tangerine Dream. Most mystery or sci-fi movies would benefit from a soundtrack like this.
A soundtrack for being outside on a starry night, but only if you're not afraid of the dark.
Clark — Playground in a Lake
Playground in a Lake, released on Deutsche Grammophon, is a special album for Clark's standards. The record starts with a cello melody that reminds me of The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind1 soundtrack, which has to be taken as a compliment, I really like that one. Clark, previously producing IDM or braindance records on Warp, releases a very solid contemporary classic album here, that involves all his experience, with epic sound walls, catchy melodies and mysterious vibes alike.
This is a record for people pretending not to like classical music but are overwhelmed by good old Hollywood soundtracks.
Tommy Guerrero — Sunshine Radio
The californian Tommy Guerrero, former pro skateboarder, now a professional musician is living the dream (at least I hope he does 😅). His music is best described as a fusion of Instrumental Rock, Jazz, Funk and Downtempo2 influenced by hot shimmering air, cacti, yucca, agaves and tequila at sundown. Okay, that's just my mental picture of his music but I still think it gives you an idea of what to expect.
Hear this, or his other records, if you want to get in a good mood or if you want to relax on a hot summer evening. Best listened to with friends, some beers and a joint 🌿.
Loscil — Clara
An ambient gem released on Kranky, one of the few record labels I really admire because of their consistently great output. Loscil has a large back catalogue of great ambient albums, and this one is no different. Sourced from a three minute record of an Hungarian twenty-two string orchestra the album has a more natural touch than ambient records produced completely inside the box, i.e. by software synths. Nothing against software synths and artificial sounds, but sometimes sampling real instruments gives the little touch which makes a good album into a great one.
Perfect album to listen to on a trip to Scandinavia or Canada in autumn or winter months.
Simon Farintosh — Aphex Twin for Guitar
There are not many artists that had a greater influence on my music taste and life in general than Aphex Twin, Autechre and Venetian Snares. I love everything they do and especially what they did. In 2005 Alarm Will Sound released Acoustica, an orchestral interpretation of Aphex' early work. No different is this record of Simon Farintosh, another UK based guitarist.
Listen to this if you like Aphex Twin, if not listen to it as well. You don't have a choice.
Darkthrone — Eternal Hails......
I do not know much about Norwegian black/heavy metal institution Darkthrone, except that I like this album. Mainly because it's rough and primitive, both in terms of sound and atmosphere. Nothing is worse than those hipster metal bands with their crystal clear productions and triggered base drums. A solid black metal album must be a bit filthy, and this one is filthy enough without sounding like it was recorded in a bathroom through an 80s cassette recorder (this is the other extreme).
Do you hate social media as much as I do? If so, this is the album for you. Otherwise, just head over to Twitter and annoy like minded people with your garbage.
VC-118A — Spiritual Machines
Finland based producer VC-118A makes electro that almost counts as braindance or IDM. Groovy beats combined with rattling percussion, spheric drones, glitchy artifacts and shimmering reverb. An album that would even make HAL-9000 dance like he's selling nails3.
Have you booked your first trip to space? This is the album you should hear on your way into orbit.
Savana Funk — Tindouf
Production on this record is not very great, the noise floor is loud enough that you can hear it even on speakers, let alone headphones. However, the music easily makes up for this luxury problem. With Tindouf Savana Funk has recorded a fantastic funk album that takes influences from north african music and feels timeless, in the sense that it could have been produced in the 70s as well.
This could be the soundtrack for your next trip to Algeria or Morocco, or to Italy, because that's where the band is located.
Wolff Parkinson White
Jochen Rueckert, a New York based Jazz Drummer, is releasing experimental electronic records with very complex rhythmic patterns and pretty uncommon melodies under his moniker Wolff Parkinson White. I would label his music as breakcore or IDM. Album descriptions of his Wolff Parkinson White records always state that "Jochen does not play drums on this recording". I would assume that no real human could play those drum patterns anyway 🤖.
A Cambrian explosion of samples, thrown at you in supersonic speed and razor-sharp precision. This last sentence is utter nonsense but I always wanted to include the Cambrian explosion into a review. Anyways, Veritable Rapunzel is a chaotic mess that forces you into a sensory overload, if listened in full and twice in a row. Just give it a listen and you will know what I mean.
If CPUs could dream in sleep mode this would be their soundtrack.
Rueckert's second release this year. This time featuring Hayden Chrisholm, who does vocals on this album. The record is a bit more jazzy than Veritable Rapunzel, yet it still has hyper complex beats with melodic elements that sometimes feel (intentionally) out of tune. I would say that those ultra fast polyrhythmic beats with the slightly skewed melodics are Wolff Parkinson White's signature sound. Advanced listening material.
An album to impress an artsy-fartsy person whose favorite cocktail is a cosmopolitan.
Heliochrysum — We Become Mist
This is the debut album of the Los Angeles based composer and sound designer duo Heliochrysum. When hearing this album for the first time it reminded me of Blade Runner. Production on this album is top notch, we get a great mixture of industrial like noises, massive drones, piano sounds and sometimes a heavy bass drum hit. Everything about this album feels cinematic, which might be because Ben Frost did the final mix. I really hope that we see another album of the duo in the near future.
Have you watched the launch of the James Webb space telescope? This is your album then!
Pessimista - Ocaso
This best of list is really a roller coaster ride of musical genres. Ocaso is a rather simple Black Metal album and in no terms perfect, but I do like its rawness combined and the punk rock influence. My favorite track is Se Ícaro soubesse o que sei agora... which translates to If Icarus knew what I know now... if we can trust Google translate. The record reminds me of black metal concerts in dark, shabby and smoky clubs. Let's hope that there will be (more) concerts again in 2022.
Perfect album for one who sees the glass as half empty.
Crypt Monarch — The Necronaut
This should be the first doom metal LP in the list. Due to their bass heavy, down tuned and slow riffs listening to doom metal is almost meditative. Of course, the more than 10 minute runtime for every track are an important factor as well. I do like to listen to doom, be it stoner doom or whatever sub genre, while programming because it's not obtrusive and helps to concentrate on the work. So, what makes this album special now? I actually do not know, there's just the fact that I listened to it multiple times and that it feels very solid, sound and production wise.
🚶 🏙️ 🌿## Tarika Blue — Self Titled
Tarika Blue's self titled album is not a 2021 release, instead its a reissue of the record originally released in 1974. Their music is best described as a fusion of jazz, soul and disco. Erykah Badu sampled the track Dreamflower on her 2001 hit Didn't Cha Know. Super smooth record, great vocals, nice guitar licks and funky drums.
Too good to be just a sample source for hip hop beats, give it a spin and hear for yourself.
Swami Lateplate — Doom Jazz
Doom Jazz is a self describing tite and tells you exactly where to put this album. If you know Bohren & der Club of Gore then this sound will be familiar to you. I really like that this albums comes without brass instruments and vocals. It's pretty hard to find a good jazz record that is not drowned in saxophone nonsense, for some reason sax players often need to show off and give solo parts that almost sound like they're on the edge of getting a heart attack.
Best played on headphones while slandering through barely lit side streets on a rainy, full moon summer night.
Worm — Foreverglade
Florida death metal outfit Worm is gifting us with a real banger on the 20 Buck Spin label4. Not sure how to label this album, maybe death metal or funeral doom, does not really matter anyways because the music is absolutely excellent and miles above their previous, debut album. Let me admit that I'm the type of guy how rates an album by its cover, and let me tell you that this method works in at least four out of five cases. This is one of those four cases, I mean just look at this cover, as if M. C. Escher and Hieronymus Bosch had a frankensteinian love child (however that could be). A no bullshit record that keeps on giving over the whole playtime, highly recommended.
Ever did a tour thorugh the Florida swamps? Me neither, but if you do, take this album with you.
HunoHuno — Pleasant Valley
Detroit Underground, a label best known for their excellent IDM and techno releases, gives us a rather hard to categorize album here. We could just put the IDM sticker on it, but that wouldn't do the record enough justice. A mad scientist mixture of sounds, textures and glitch hop style beats.
Pleasant Valley Detour is the first part of a musical project that seeks to interpret the mystery of the daily journey into the unknown.
Above sentence stems from the Bandcamp record description and gives me hope that there will be subsequent releases to this album. For some reason they labeled it Pleasant Valley Detour, which might indicates that there will be follow ups as well.
Not recommended for driving (judging by its album art).
MC Solaar - Prose Combat
Yet another reissue, this time a french hip hop classic originally put out in 1994 and that I managed to miss in my teenage years, much later, where I thought to have discovered everything there is rap-wise5. Boom bap beats are totally my thing and luckily this style has seen a revival in recent years, even though mostly in the undergroud. I just can't stand those rattling hi-hat trap beats every mumbling rapper uses nowadays, especially since they all sound the same. No, this is not old man yelling at couds, I am allowed to hate things! La Haine, a movie about youth life in french suburbs of the 90s, features Comme Dans Un Film (like in a movie) which was an outtake of Prose Combat. A record that perfectly captures the aestehtics of the time, which makes it sound a bit dated but sometimes this is desired and must not be seen as a disadvantage.
No need to speak french to listen to this one, a record made for summer evenings.
Submotion Orchestra — Finest Hour
I am sorry for having another reissue in the list, but that's how it is. Actually I'm not sorry at all because this album is a bloody gem and your life will be worse if you have never listened to it! Submotion Orchestra are a seven piece band from England that are influenced by soul, dub(step), electronica and trip-hop. I have no idea how this record, released in 2009, could fly under my radar until this year.
A record so versatile that it fits any time and moment, ideally the more mellow ones.
Otto A Totland - Companion
Already bored by Nils Frahm? Then this could be something for you. With Companion norwegian composer Otto A. Totland, one half of the legendary ambient duo Deaf Center, put out an album of piano compositions recorded at Nils Frahm's Berlin studio (that brings us right back to the start). Despite most piano records I heard this has a very positive tone, that makes it special for me. When you're done listening to this album you can continue with Totland's previous two albums, The Lost and Pinô, both not as cheerful as this one.
When everything is fine listen to this album.
Bleach Lab — Nothing Feels Real
Nothing Feels Real seems to be out of time and, without a doubt, could have been an early 90s shoegaze album. I was really on the fence with adding this one to the list but eventually decided to put it in anyways. No further description.
An album for people who like Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine or Cocteau Twins.
Writing those short reviews was much fun and is something I should do more regularly, even though in smaller batches and not for almost 30 albums at a time. Also, note that the albums were added in no particular order or relevance. There were tons of other records I could have added but they did not fit because they either weren't released in 2021 nor reissued.
I think that's the last video game I played for hours non-stop. ↩︎
Better known as Balearic. (Sorry, that was an insider joke.) ↩︎
When did planet-mu stop releasing good music? Everything they put out in recent years is embarrassing garbage that is just a bit to edgy to be released on Stones Throw. ↩︎
You should follow this label, they have a very solid track record of album releases. ↩︎
A foolish thought, there is always some great album left to discover. ↩︎